Wednesday, December 1

Worms transfer their learnings to their peers

Worms transfer their learnings to their peers

Worms transfer their learnings to their peers

According to research by scientists at Princeton University, the C. elegans worm has developed a mechanism to transfer learned behavior, such as avoiding a pathogenic bacteria, to another worm. The worms secrete some signal that, when picked up by other worms, can modify their behavior.

The transfer is not only intergenerational: the secreted signal it triggers the same learning pathway in receptor worms that have no “family” relationship with the sender worm. The study by the American researchers was recently published in the journal Cell.

According to a Press release, the specialists were able to verify that the worms recognize the presence of a potentially harmful pathogen in the environment in which they interact and manage to avoid it. It’s about the bacteria P. aeruginosa, which they elude through a genetic process in which the Cer1 retrotransposon.

The retrotransposones they are genetic elements with the ability to amplify themselves in a genome, in order to enhance some type of mechanism or process. In the case of the C. elegans worm, the Cer1 retrotransposon helps to detect and avoid the threat of the bacteria. These components can be found in the DNA of many organisms of this type.

Chemical signals

Since worms cannot warn their companions of possible danger by words or gestures, they use chemical signals: they release the Cer1 retrotransposon into the environment to transfer the learned behavior to other worms that are not part of their progeny. They have thus developed a double path of transfer of learning: genetic inheritance and a “chemical communication” that puts the rest of the worms on alert.

In a previous study, scientists had managed to describe the mechanism of transfer of learning to offspring. They found that the worms that had ingested the P. aeruginosa bacteria absorbed a small piece of bacterial RNA through their intestines.

Subsequently, the genetic information generated a signal in the reproductive cells of the worm, which was in turn transmitted to a neuron in charge of controlling behavior. The new learned behavior was then passed on to the offspring through cell changes.

Related Topic: Even worms have emotions.

The memory of worms

Now, researchers have been able to verify that the same mechanism can take place among adult worms that are not linked in terms of offspring. In this case, the information “travels” in the Cer1 retrotransposon, which when released into the environment reaches other specimens that are unaware of the inherent danger of the pathogen.

Everything indicates that the chemical signal produced by the worms is remarkably effective: the offspring of worms “educated” by receiving the chemical message can avoid the pathogenic bacteria during the following four generations. In addition, worms detected by the non-hereditary route multiply the protective effect in their own environment.

It is also worth noting that the secreted signal triggers the same learning process in the worms receptors than in those that are directly exposed to the pathogen: in other words, the behavior learned through personal experience is “memorized” and transmitted to other specimens without losing efficacy or sustenance.


The role of the Cer1 transposon in horizontal transfer of transgenerational memory. Rebecca S. Moore, Rachel Kaletsky, Chen Lesnik, Vanessa Kota, Edith Blackman, Lance R. Parsons, Zemer Gitai and Coleen T. Murphy. Cell (2021).DOI:

Photo: the C. elegans worm protects itself from pathogens by “reading” the bacteria’s genetic information, using this data to avoid danger and transmitting “memories” of this behavior to its offspring. It also releases it into the environment to “alert” other worms. Credit: Kbradnam on Wikimedia Commons.

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